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Venezuela Begins Debate On Future Without Chavez

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, seen speaking during a TV program in Caracas on June 15, will compete with former opposition governor Henrique Capriles and other candidates in October's presidential elections. (AFP/Getty Images)

In Venezuela, people are beginning to talk about what was once unthinkable: Just who could succeed the all-powerful President Hugo Chavez?

He has been battling cancer, which for much of this year forced him to suspend his once-frequent TV appearances. On Monday, Chavez declared himself free of the cancer, though it's not the first time he's said he was cured.

For 13 years, he has consolidated his hold on power while nationalizing farmland and seizing private companies. And now, despite his infrequent appearances, he remains a political force.

The charismatic populist has lately been projecting that image in fiery speeches ahead of the Oct. 7 presidential election. Chavez is seeking a fourth term even though he has told Venezuelans that he has had three surgeries to remove a tumor.

The cancer treatments have sidelined him for much of the year and sparked speculation that he could die. Aside from Chavez's own declarations, the details of his condition remain a state secret.

But at meetings of the movements that make up Chavez's coalition, there's discussion of how the president's so-called socialist revolution may have to go on without him.

One of those movements, Venezuelan Revolutionary Currents, is led by Ramses Reyes. He says socialism in Venezuela won't end if Chavez is no longer here; it will continue to expand.

Politics professor Luis Alberto Butto says that kind of debate is going on throughout the government's power structure. Obviously Chavez's socialist party needs to consider all possible scenarios that may take place in the short to long term, he says.

Butto adds that if Chavez is forced to drop out before the election, his party would have to choose a successor to run in his place. A six-year term is at stake.

And if Chavez runs and wins, and then dies in the first four years of the new term, new elections would have to be called.

The opposition challenger in the October election, Henrique Capriles, says he wants Chavez to run so he can beat him and overturn his socialist revolution.

We want him to have a long life, Capriles told supporters recently, so he can see the Venezuela of progress that we'll build.

Possible Successors

But if Chavez is forced out by his illness, three aides have emerged as possible successors. They are loyalists who've increasingly been seen inaugurating public projects on state TV or accompanying Chavez during his ordeal.

Diosdado Cabello, the president of Congress, is one of them. In 2002, he worked to ensure Chavez's return after coup plotters briefly ousted the president and read aloud a televised proclamation taking power.

Others who've been increasingly visible include Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and Vice President Elias Jaua.

There's yet another possible scenario. Chavez could go with his brother and confidant, Adan. He's close to Cuba's communist government, which supports Chavez. He also introduced a young Chavez to radical political thought.

And then there's Rosa Virginia, one of Chavez's daughters. She doesn't have an official job, but in clips from state TV, she's shown at her father's side on his trips to Cuba for cancer treatments, listening silently as he talks to the cameras.

Eduardo Semtei, who helped take Chavez to power in the 1990s, believes the president will want someone with his last name in the presidential palace.

Semtei says history shows that all-powerful leaders like Chavez often turn to family in time of crisis.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some people have also questioned the condition of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. On Monday, Chavez declared himself free of the cancer he's been fighting for more than a year. This is not the first time Chavez has said he's cured. And nobody knows if he really is. So Venezuelans now talk of who could someday succeed their all-powerful leader. NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: In Venezuela, no one in President Chavez's one-man government publicly talks about a country without him. For 13 years, he's consolidated his hold on power while nationalizing farmland and seizing private companies. And now, even with cancer, he remains a political force.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: The charismatic populist has lately been projecting that image in fiery speeches ahead of the October 7th presidential election. Chavez is seeking a fourth term, even though he's told Venezuelans that he's had three surgeries to remove a tumor. The cancer treatments have sidelined him for much of the year and sparked speculation that he could die. The details of the condition remain a state secret.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: But at meetings of the movements that make up Chavez's coalition, there's talk of how the president's so-called socialist revolution may have to go on without him. One of those movements, Venezuelan Revolutionary Currents, is led by Ramses Reyes.

RAMSES REYES: (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: Socialism in Venezuela won't end if Chavez is no longer here, Reyes says. It'll continue to expand.

Politics Professor Luis Alberto Butto says that kind of debate is going on throughout the government's power structure.

LUIS ALBERTO BUTTO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Obviously Chavez's socialist party needs to consider all possible scenarios that may take place in the short to long term, says Butto.

Butto says if Chavez is forced to drop out before the election, his party would have to choose a successor to run in his place. A six-year term is at stake. And if Chavez runs and wins, and then dies in the first four years of the new term, new elections would have to be called.

The opposition's challenger in the October election, Henrique Capriles, says he wants Chavez to run so he can beat him and overturn his socialist revolution.

HENRIQUE CAPRILES: (Spanish language spoken)

(APPLAUSE)

FORERO: We want him to have a long life, Capriles told supporters recently, so he can see the Venezuela of progress that we'll build.

But if Chavez is forced out by cancer, three aides have emerged as possible successors. They are loyalists who've increasingly been seen inaugurating public projects on state TV, or accompanying Chavez during his ordeal.

Diosdado Cabello, the president of congress, is one of them. In 2002, he worked to ensure Chavez's return after coup plotters briefly ousted the president and read aloud a televised proclamation taking power.

(APPLAUSE)

DIOSADADO CABELLO: (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: Others who've been increasingly visible include Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and Vice President Elias Jaua.

There's yet another possible scenario: Chavez could go with his brother and confidant, Adan. He's close to Cuba's communist government, which supports Chavez. He also introduced a young Chavez to radical political thought.

And then there's Rosa Virginia, one of Chavez's daughters. She doesn't have an official job.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: But in clips from state TV, she's shown at her father's side on his trips to Cuba for cancer treatments, listening silently as he talks to the cameras.

Eduardo Semtei, who helped take Chavez to power in the 1990s, believes the president will want someone with his last name in the presidential palace.

EDUARDO SEMTEI: (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: Semtei says history shows that all-powerful leaders like Chavez often turn to family in time of crisis.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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